Editor’s Note: This essay contains discussion of plot details, including potential spoilers, from several Christopher Nolan films.
I remember the frenetic buzzing in my head on the way out of the midnight showing of The Dark Knight. I remember the way the theater seemed to heave after the final frame, all at once ringing with cheers, expletives, arguments, and the laughter of release. We went home and made all our friends see it. We watched the box office numbers climb like we had money on them.
As part of the millennial generation, I’ve seen my fair share of franchise mania—people always want to talk about the latest Spider-Man or Harry Potter—but people wanted to talk about The Dark Knight at a level I had never seen before. By the time the film opened, Christopher Nolan had already released five films as a director and cowriter—three noir-influenced crime dramas, his first Batman film, and a period thriller—to increasing acclaim and financial success. All were dark and philosophically bent. But none of those films had generated its own cultural moment.
Part of this fervor was related to the well-deserved hype concerning Heath Ledger’s final performance. Remember how gleeful we felt to meet Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow? Watching Ledger’s Joker took that feeling to dizzy, depraved heights. From the second he walked into the frame with his deadpan laugh and matted hair, we were rapt. By three lines in (“I’m gonna make this pencil . . . disappear”), the audience had lost it. It was the most literally I have ever sat on the edge of my seat—it was the first time I had laughed and gasped in the same breath. Ledger’s Joker made the film a ride.
Mere rides don’t linger, though, and The Dark Knight lingered.
Comic book films arrive pre-weighted with moral symbolism—they pit good against evil with colored capes to serve as team markers. Superman gave us sturdy metaphors: a Christ figure, kryptonite, Metropolis. Spider-Man’s Green Goblin had a few Nietzschean sermons for our bug-bitten everyman. But director and cowriter Christopher Nolan’s experience with hard-boiled crime films lent The Dark Knight a moral gravity that refused to be ignored. Its characters discussed ancient Roman dictators over dinner. Its villain was terrifying, but the film also pondered the frightening possibilities inside its heroes. And a few of its ethically fraught episodes were insomnia worthy.
No scene is as provocative as the ferry scene. The setup is this: the psychopathic Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives. One boat carries civilians and one criminals. The Joker then gives each ferry the detonator to the other boat’s bombs, and claims that if neither ferry has destroyed the other by midnight, he will destroy both of them. It’s the classic utilitarian dilemma spiked with authority issues—can we discard some lives in order to spare others? Are there scenarios where it makes sense to succumb to a terrorist’s terms? Who makes the decisions?
The results of this experiment are maddening to anyone looking for a straightforward lesson on human nature. The civilians vote three-to-one for destroying the other ferry, but no individual is willing to engage the detonator. The criminals take no vote; their choice is made by a strong-willed leader who throws the detonator out the window. Neither destroys the other, and for that, the Joker seems to have failed in his thesis: “When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”
They don’t eat each other. But they wanted to. So who won?
This is the type of question repeatedly invoked in The Dark Knight and, indeed, throughout Nolan’s dark body of work. Perhaps the decision to make “Why so serious?” into the Joker’s sinister catchphrase was arch—for it is precisely Nolan’s seriousness that made the film so wildly successful. The Joker is more than a villain—he is a force of nature, “a dog chasing cars,” nihilism embodied. Batman is repeatedly characterized as a shadowy symbol, as “more than a hero.” When they face off, ideas hang in the balance, and we can feel the urgency. Batman deals blows to a Joker who merely laughs; it’s justice versus chaos, Batman’s unstoppable force meeting the Joker’s immovable object.
But The Dark Knight resists moralizing. It is not a mere allegory or clash of the ideological titans. There are archetypes here, ethical puzzles, downfall, and sacrifice; there is no doubt that Nolan has created a deeply moral film, forcing us to contend with evil in every scene. By the end, though, it doesn’t seem that the film has answered its own questions, at least not consistently. From where does evil come? How can we fight it without surrendering to it? Why must one, as more than one character in The Dark Knight pronounces, “die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”?
The film leaves us with a captured villain, a fallen saint, and a Dark Knight—“the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs,” as Commissioner Gordon calls Batman in the film’s final lines. The first few times I watched Batman ride off into the fray, taking on the sins of another and living out his noble lie, I felt a tension in my gut: the urge to cheer coupled with an unfinished, haunted feeling. I had a suspicion that Nolan had merely evoked philosophy to give the film a false depth, that he had flung themes and questions at us without the decency to resolve or connect them. Worse, I feared that he might have been manipulating us into applauding for reprehensible, elitist attitudes about truth and human nature by slipping them among chase scenes and explosions.
It didn’t seem fair. It is one thing for an art house film to float out questions about evil and let them hang; it is quite another for a summer superhero movie to take the same approach. I could not shake the sense that Nolan was being nebulous where he had every obligation to take a stand.
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If Nolan’s messages about human nature in The Dark Knight seem ambiguous, it is not for lack of reflection on the issue. Evil is at the thematic forefront of every one of his seven films. If we are to make anything of the moral entanglement that emerges in The Dark Knight, it makes sense to comb Nolan’s catalog for the threads of his worldview. Are there things about human nature he seems to keep saying?
In a 2005 interview with Box Office Mojo, following the release of Batman Begins, Nolan addressed the presence of darkness in his films, explaining that “I don’t think exclusively in terms of darkness and light—I do think of that, but I also think in terms of what I would call bleakness and richness. . . . I did feel confident in Batman Begins that we had taken material that was in its raw form bleak and given it an emotional resonance that was warmer, if you like.”1 This bleakness/richness dichotomy is perhaps a more cohesive way of characterizing Nolan’s worldview than darkness/light or good/evil dichotomies. In the end, it is not that Nolan is inconsistent. I wanted him to tell me a fable because his hero had a cape, but that wasn’t fair. Instead, I ought to have applauded him for his commitment to depicting the world as he knows it, the world as it is: grim, complex, pregnant with worth, and never beyond redemption.
This lush philosophical landscape did not emerge fully formed from Nolan’s brain at the outset. Bleakness was his first language. His first three movies—all neo-noir films—are set in a cold reality, though they set up the questions that Nolan would continue to ask in his later films. The worlds of 1998’s Following, 2000’s Memento, and 2002’s Insomnia indeed seem “simple, miserable, solid all the way through” (to borrow a phrase from The Prestige), but they ask resonant questions about human nature and the ease of our descent into evil.
In Following, Nolan’s little-seen first film, the protagonist makes a hobby of innocent stalking. His motive is mere personal curiosity: “You ever . . . just let your eyes rise, go over, drift across a crowd of people, and then slowly stop and fix on one person . . . and they’ve become an individual, just like that.” Psychological curiosity becomes a motif of the film when our hero gets taken in by a burglar named Cobb (a precursor to Leonardo DiCaprio’s namesake con in Inception). Cobb may be a thief, but his main thrill comes from stepping inside other people’s lives—rifling through their letters, drinking their wine. The characters soon descend past thievery into duplicity, blows, and murder, and inside the genre, none of this shocks us. Following serves mostly as a training ground for Nolan’s kinky structural tastes, but what makes the film interesting is its interest in personhood. As our newly initiated burglar pores over snapshots of his victims, we feel the interplay of anonymity and specificity, a strange “there but for the grace of God go I.”
“Everyone has a box,” Cobb informs the protagonist. What he means is that all victims have a place to store their secrets, backstories just as lurid as any crime done to them. In one scene, Cobb and his pupil are caught by a returning flat owner, but she seems to turn a blind eye. Cobb explains that she couldn’t accuse them because she was sneaking in with a lover. In the gloomy world of Following, evil is effortless, and secrets are the tie that binds.
Memento’s world is not much brighter. It follows Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who “has this condition”: since he was dealt a blow by his wife’s rapist and killer, he has been unable to store new memories for longer than a few minutes. Leonard is suspended forever at his moment of deepest pain, his life now driven by the revenge that he has to remind himself to seek. He believes that vengeance will tip the earth further toward justice, even though he will never be able to feel personal vindication. Leonard is haunted by guilt and feels that his fate may be a case of poetic justice. We are asked to root for Leonard’s quest for vengeance—his world has been so reduced that it seems it is his only hope to make meaning out of life. But Nolan has said that he believes revenge is “a flaw, a compromise”2—perhaps Leonard’s is a compromise made with a world too cruel to let him grieve. “John G raped and murdered your wife,” the tattoo on Leonard’s collarbone reads; his very reality is predicated on an atrocity.
Nolan’s next film finds him digging further into the question of human nature, and introduces duality as his favorite way to explore it. Insomnia, a detective noir picture, follows a more straightforward narrative. Detective Dormer (Al Pacino) is dispatched to Alaska to solve the murder of a high school girl. In a fog-clouded chase, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner and impulsively lies to cover it up. The only witness to Dormer’s crime is the killer he’s pursuing, which serves as a curious equalizer. Our hero soon finds himself in a twisted partnership with the villain, united by “how easy it is to kill someone.” As the Alaska sun keeps him torturously awake, Dormer loses his grip on reality and his ability to separate himself from the criminal he seeks to capture. In a June 5, 2002, interview with Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club, Nolan talks about his interest in the “moral paradox” of Detective Dormer: “He doesn’t have any way, if you think about it, to do the right thing. In fact, it really doesn’t matter whether he’s doing the right thing.” Nolan goes on to describe how audiences become “trapped with” these compromised characters, unable to discern the right course of action any better than the people onscreen, and this is what Nolan believes “noir’s all about.” Detective Dormer’s circumstances, like Leonard Shelby’s, are too messy and limited to offer him genuine choice.
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The philosophical settings of Nolan’s early films are gripping and morally tangled, but as in most crime dramas, they are bleak from the bottom up, with no chance for any kind of enduring redemption. Nolan is concerned with the impulses and paradoxes of human nature, but his characters’ paths are restrained by the conventional tragedy and pessimism of film noir. That is, until Batman Begins.
Batman—the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight—is a noir director’s dream. But it is clear that Nolan planned to use Batman Begins to broaden his message, to take his favorite revenge stories and thicken them with ethics. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has a chip on his shoulder that’s just as big as Leonard Shelby’s. He watched a mugger kill his parents when he was ten years old, and his hunger for revenge follows him into adulthood. But in Batman Begins, revenge is the beginning of the story, not the end.
Just as his parents’ killer is being released from prison, Bruce has his gun cocked to kill him. As fate would have it, someone beats him to it; he feels robbed. When he tells this to friend and love interest Rachel Dawes,3 she slaps him and says, “Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself feel better.” Bruce is no less full of rage and regret for this, but Rachel (the series’ idealist) widens his gaze. Bruce realizes that evil is bigger than his own painful past; it’s a symptom of a fallen world. He throws his gun to the sea and sets out to find a richer kind of retribution.
Here, Nolan takes the origin story someplace compelling and vital (and, as far as I know, not spelled out in the source material). Bruce abandons his life of privilege to live a poor criminal’s life on the other side of the world. He’s half looking for a fight and half seeking to understand his enemies. Bruce is desperate and driven, and his heroism is anything but accidental or otherworldly; he is quintessentially human. He eventually gets taken in by the League of Shadows, an organization that leader Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) assures him shares his hatred of evil and desire for true justice. Bruce then undergoes backbreaking combat training in his quest for “the means to fight injustice; to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” In Nolan’s film, “Batman” is not a superhero but a hard-won vocation; Batman is Bruce’s vehicle for his social outrage.
But Bruce soon finds that the League of Shadows seeks a justice that is too brutal to accept. Ra’s al Ghul sees evil as a cancer that must be cut off for the sake of the whole; the League of Justice credits itself with the fall of decadent societies throughout history, societies “beyond saving.” From his revenge-fueled past, Bruce has come to understand that only compassion can raise justice out of an endless cycle of bloodshed.
Bruce doesn’t believe in an eye for an eye, but his mission still requires him to use darkness to fight darkness. The city of Gotham is a bleak place, full of shadowy hideouts. Batman is intended to terrify. He descends on criminals, snarls at them, beats them—but he never kills. Bruce becomes a lout to divert attention from his alter ego. Nolan has loaded up his protagonist with his trademark knotty duality, but this time out, it’s different. His first films blurred the lines between hero and villain and let the questions ring. Batman may be dark, but Nolan does not let us forget that he is also a knight. There is a moment, pre-Batman, where Bruce goes down into his cave. Bats descend on him like a plague, the symbols of evil and childhood terror. He collapses in fear but then rises, empowered by the ability to stand inside his nightmare. This scene moves us because it is bleakness made rich. The evils (fear and anger) that pulse inside Bruce push him to fight the evils that lurk outside.
There are two types of evil people in Batman Begins: corrupt crooks (like drug lord Falcone) and merciless justice hounds (like Ra’s al Ghul). Their common weakness is a reductive view of human nature. Falcone sees people as pathetic and exploitable. Ra’s al Ghul sees them as depraved and irredeemable. Both characters see themselves as part of an elite that knows better. Batman’s mission is, then, populist: he fights for the sake of humanity at large, fallen Gotham a stand-in for a fallen world.
The question stands, then: Is Gotham worth saving? And if so, for whose sake? There is a very anti-Nolan moment in the 2002 Spider-Man where the citizens of New York City band together to help Spidey antagonize the Green Goblin: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” Gotham makes no such motion to prove its worth. It’s implied that the people of Gotham, in their weakness, have let their city become corrupt; they have allowed evil into their world, a kind of original sin. But Nolan never ascribes malevolence to the whole. Gotham is fallen in a more Dostoevskian sense: people are, in general, weak, and desperation can push them into evil.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker also expresses this belief in human depravity: “Their morals, their code . . . it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” He spends the film bringing chaos to Gotham in an effort to break the city’s spirit. In many ways, it seems he succeeds. He claims he’ll blow up a hospital if a certain man isn’t dead within the hour; citizens make attempts on his life, though Batman sees that he is spared. Batman counts the ferry scene as a victory for human nature, but he doesn’t know what really happened in that half hour. And then there is the case of Harvey Dent.
Nolan has described Harvey Dent, Gotham’s District Attorney and “White Knight,” as forming “the emotional arc of the story.”4 For the first half of the film, Harvey serves as a clean counterpart to Batman’s vigilante, White Knight to his Dark. He shares Batman’s commitment to justice and rounds up criminals with fervor—and despite his wholesomeness, he also shares a bit of Batman’s vindictive streak. At one point, he even claims Batman’s identity so that he might be arrested in Bruce’s place, taking the fall for Bruce’s dangerous anonymity. But when the Joker takes away the person he loves most, Harvey’s anguish quickly transforms him into an avenger. Like Ra’s al Ghul, he now sees justice as balance: a life for a life.
“You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time,” barks Harvey in his pain, giving voice to one of Nolan’s recurring quandaries. When the chips are down, Harvey—Gotham’s symbol of hope—falls into corruption, violence, and finally to his death. As Commissioner Gordon looks down on Harvey’s body at the end of the film, he moans, “The Joker won.” Batman replies, “The Joker can’t win.” At first, it seems like denial. But in a moment of morally ambiguous sacrifice, Batman makes it true. He places the sins of Harvey, the man, on Batman, the symbol, by claiming Harvey’s crimes of revenge as his own. Because of this atonement, the Joker cannot truly succeed in his mission to take down Harvey the hero. While the moment is darkened by Batman’s lie and the threat of the dogs sent to hunt him, Nolan ends his film with a grand moral gesture so that we know we are meant to hope.
What Nolan’s Gotham gives us is a complex tapestry of human action, a great deal of which is admittedly dishonorable. Indecent times indeed have the tendency to make people indecent. But Nolan has the discernment to give texture to his teeming masses, to explore the insidious nature of groupthink without denying humanity to individuals (as in the upright criminal on the ferry or the impersonators who try to help Batman). We find strains of richness within the film’s frantic mobs and intrusions of bleakness in the worthiest of characters. This doesn’t mean that Gotham is doomed. Its heroes, though corruptible, are genuinely noble: Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, Commissioner Gordon, Bruce’s butler Alfred, and his business manager Lucius. Despite personal difficulties, each is willing to hope and sacrifice for the sake of the city.
And what of Nolan’s other recent films, The Prestige and Inception? Both are classic Nolan stories, but they represent the opposite poles of his thematic impulses—one revenge, the other redemption. And both are colored by the richer moral possibilities that we see in the Batman films.
Although Nolan has said that he is “not interested in doing a straight revenge story,” it seems, at first blush, that The Prestige is precisely that.5 For Nolan’s first film after Batman Begins, The Prestige is a jarring thematic turnaround. It depicts the mutual sabotage of two magicians after their partnership is destroyed by a tragic accident. The event in question is another example of indecent men made from indecent times, and the majority of the film traces the magicians’ descent into deception and depravity—a depravity more savage and less ambiguous than anything in Nolan’s early films. But it all turns on the linchpin of a final monologue where Hugh Jackman’s character explains the reason he has given up his life and his integrity in the pursuit of a magic trick: “The world is simple, miserable, solid all the way through. . . . But if you can fool them even for a second, if you can make them wonder—then you got to see something very special.” The Prestige’s bleakness emerges from Nolan’s sharpened awareness of worldview. The vile tricks of its magicians are their way of making meaning in a materialist world.
Inception, like Memento, is concerned with the mysterious sprawl inside the mind and memory, and like Following and Insomnia, its dream-heist plot sports some questionable ethics. But at its heart lies a man who is hounded by loss and guilt. He lets that guilt chase him into hell and jeopardize the lives of others, but ultimately he chooses the reality of his partners over the tempting fantasy of a dream world. In The Prestige, deception is the only beauty in a bleak world. In Inception, the hero sacrifices a fabricated love for a fuller reality with his family. Both films show that, post-Batman, Nolan’s response to evil has grown out of brainteasers and into a weighty moral maturity.
So, finally: Does Nolan believe in a fallen world and in human depravity? It seems that the answer is yes. Bleakness runs through the core of every world he builds. Grief and guilt threaten to tear apart every good thing. But then we consider that only his villains believe in a degenerate humanity. “Never lose your faith in people,” Rachel writes to Bruce. The ferries are not destroyed. Alfred continues to help Bruce “pick himself up.” Are these optimistic threads mere Hollywood sugarcoating, signs that Nolan is unable to reconcile a superhero’s faith with his own dark philosophies?
For Nolan, the villains are not wrong to believe that people are corruptible. They are wrong to believe that people are past redemption. We have inherited Gotham, a once-great metropolis that we let go to the dogs. Harvey tells us that “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and we watch it become his story. In Nolan’s Gotham, humans fail. Bruce tries to enact his own human justice with a gun, but it was too small, too bleak. “As a man, I can be weak, I can be ignored,” he says, “But as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” He needed to become more than a man to give us a justice worthy of the best in humans—and able to withstand the worst.
This, then, is what Rachel means when she tells Bruce to never lose his faith in people. If she had meant merely to trust in people’s better nature, she would be a fool. She’s a prosecuting attorney in America’s dirtiest fictional city. She knows better. Instead, she wants Bruce to hold onto his belief that people matter, that there is some tarnished glory in the human spirit that is worth fighting for. Bruce, the man, has been weak, vengeful, and consumed with fear. He knows better than anyone how miserable men can be, both from the crime done to him and his cowardly response. But he has also seen undeniable honor in his parents, in Rachel, in Commissioner Gordon, in Alfred.
I have a theory that Nolan thinks of himself as something of a Dark Knight. He works in shadows; he sees the world for all its darkness and duality. But he fights to show us the rich, resonating strains of worth that run through our Gotham. The Dark Knight enthralled us because Nolan used a comic book flick to speak boldly about our spiritual identity. It shook us because we thought the true tension of human nature was too heavy for a popcorn movie. But there we were on the screen: broken, terrified, and nonetheless imbued with a strange majesty.
When The Dark Knight Rises premieres, I’ll let myself cheer: not for the darkness or ambiguity I’m sure to find but for a director brave enough to show us our world for all its fallenness—and dogged hope.
3. Note that here Dawes is played by Katie Holmes, but that in The Dark Knight, Dawes is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.